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Quest for a dragon
Helen Gilchrist © all photos Helen Gilchrist

We should have guessed from the No Fear and Bad Boy stickers on his bemo… the back-to-front NY baseball cap and baggy trousers slipping down skinny midriff… the impatient excited ‘lets go lets go’ that was the only English he spoke. This driver fancied himself as Ayton Senna – drive fast die young – and he didn’t give a monkeys who he might take with him down into the rocky ravines which threatened deep off the side of the winding mountain roads of Sumbawa. As I bounce bump roll around in the back of the rattling bemo, sweating from the heat and fear, I know it has to be a case of hold tight, grin and bear it… we are on a voyage to come face to face with a legendary beast: the Komodo Dragon. There is definitely no room for whingers on this trip.

Landscapes… people; always good distractions when you’re uncomfortable and scared. Cramped and peering out of the dusty window, I gaze at huge heavy skies, muddy paddies, water buffalo, barefoot ragged children playing in the streets amongst dilapidated shacks and piles of rubble, old men sitting in doorways watching, Muslim girls in full purdah filing down the street into the school yard, donkeys decked in bells pulling dokkars in the dusty heat, a passing whiff of satay or Nasi goreng being cooked up on the roadside stalls, naked boys washing, splashing , scrapping in brown silt-clogged rivers, and bemos upturned and half submerged in paddies at the side of the road (hardly surprising…)

© Helen Gilchrist

Four hours pass, and, as the orange pink glow of evening draws into a sticky velvety darkness, we finally, thankfully, arrive in Sape, the port of departure for the island of Komodo.
11pm: sitting on the deck of the boat we have chartered to take us to the island – a rice boat that we haven’t even seen in daylight (well, the captain did flash his dim torch briefly across it) – waiting to head off into the darkness. The ‘dragons’, which are actually the world’s biggest lizards, are cold-blooded, and so best visited just after dawn when they are still sleepy and sluggish. Leave them time to warm up with the sun, and they can run at speeds of up to 40 mph; not a good idea when they can kill and strip a whole deer down to a pile of bones in a just a couple of minutes.

So the idea is that we travel through the night, arriving at the island just after sunrise; the perfect time to get right up close to the lizards with minimal danger. That’s the theory – but we still have to make it across the notoriously treacherous waters that lie between Sumbawa and Komodo (often subject to strange rip currents and whirlpools), journeying through the darkness in our battered old boat which we’ve just discovered has no radar, no radio, no lights… nothing except a crate of Bintang beers for Dutch courage and four Indonesians who don’t speak any English other than ‘you like David Beckham?’.
A better way to travel © Helen Gilchrist

Chugging into the blackness… stars above, phosphorescence below; sprawled out on the deck trying to snatch a few hours’ sleep. Drifting. At four in the morning a squall of rain comes in and we all cram into the wheelhouse with the boatmen, squash up tight drinking the strong sweet coffee they’ve brewed up on the log fire behind us. At five, the first grey light of dawn reveals the ragged rocky form of Komodo, looming ahead like some Odysseian island where one-eyed giants herd vicious dragons…

This is the most desolate place I have ever been. It hasn’t rained for over a year and all the rivers have run dry. Earth, stones, grasses, bamboos, scrub and sky are all the same greyish brown. Scratchy-eyed and silent, we trek through the savannah with our guide, watching, waiting for our first encounter. In the past tourists were taken to a special viewing enclosure in the middle of the bush, where a goat would be strung up from a tree, and they could watch the lizards’ feeding frenzy from the safety of a raised veranda. Now, however, they’ve abandoned this in order to encourage minimum interference with the lizards’ natural environment and behavioural patterns. So we walk free in their realm, only our guide is armed with a special Y-shaped stick (nothing reassuring like a pistol…). All eyes are peeled - but not a sniff.

Did we come all this way for nothing? Dejected - downright pissed off, we sit in the camp restaurant eating our lunch. The sun has burnt through the clouds and is beating down. A faint background scuffle is getting louder and we suddenly turn to see a wild boar crashing down into the camp… closely pursued by a 3 metre-long Komodo lizard! They vanish underneath the raised restaurant and, after much banging and jolting under the floorboards, the lizard emerges on the other side, fresh blood dripping from his savage chops. He prowls slowly, eyeing the people dashing to the safety of the restaurant, then quickly moves off as the Indonesians start throwing stones and even plastic chairs at his huge bulk.

The Beast in question

Sitting back after the excitement has died down, I remember the story we had been told about the German tourist who wandered outside the boundary of the camp and vanished without a trace; nothing but a pair of old boots which were later found in the bush…

© Helen Gilchrist 2001

To Fiji with Helen Gilchrist

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